Computer games and play culture
- an outline of an interpretative framework

Carsten Jessen

Are computer games good for children? The question has been asked since the first games appeared in the so-called video arcades and amusement halls at the end of the 1970s. The fear that computer games could have an unfortunate influence on children’s development or actually make them dependent has been widespread, and today many grown-ups still have great reservations about the phenomenon. Over the past twenty years, though, the games have become increasingly popular among children and the young, and now at the end of the 1990s the interactive media have become a threat to traditional toys. According to the Danish toy industry, sales of traditional toys are stagnating, while the opposite is happening for interactive phenomena like computer games. Christmas 1998, for example was dominated by interactive toys. More than a quarter of toys for children today are digital (Rørth 1999). It is still mainly the boys who play, but among the younger girls interest is growing.

The computer games can no longer, as before, be regarded as a subcultural phenomenon reserved for the few who are interested in computers. On the whole, interactive digital phenomenon seem to have a strong appeal for the growing generations, who have been surrounded from birth by these “new” media, and have adopted them without the reservations typical of older generations. This difference in the generations’ relationships with technology can become very important in the future, thinks the bestselling American author Don Tapscott. It could lead to a new generation struggle. The modern societies, according to Tapscott, are facing great social transformations for which the digital media can take much of the credit, and which will happen over the next decade. The present generations of children, whom Tapscott calls “N-geners” (the Net Generation), will implement these changes with or without the participation of older generations. If this can lead to a wide generation gap, it is because the influence of information and communication technology will be so radical: “Because it is distributed, interactive, malleable, and lacking central control, it is a vehicle for a revolutionary change in every discipline, attitude, and social structure. Never has there been a time of greater promise or peril. The challenge of achieving that promise, and in so doing save our fragile planet, will rest with the Net Generation. Our responsibilities are to them – to give them the tools and opportunity to fulfill their destinies” (Tapscott 1998:13).

The attitude to the importance of technology that Tapscott expresses here is typical of the history of the computer; the revolutionary power of technology has often been emphasized, for better or for worse. Over the past twenty years we have had many heated debates on the new digital phenomena on the market, which have split the debaters into two camps. On the one side a number of adherents of technology have asserted its positive potential for the development of society, including children’s learning. On the other side a number of opponents have feared the negative influence on children’s social development. Common to both camps, however, has been the belief that technology is very important in the development of children and the young.

In reality the generational difference lies perhaps in the difference between this belief in the importance of technology, of which Tapscott is a current representative, and the fact that for the growing generations we are talking about everyday phenomena. In general it has been assumed that technology is a primary cause of change to which social structures and cultural forms must adapt. When it comes to children and the young, the fear of technology’s potential to shape thinking and behaviour has been prevalent, especially in public debate. A relatively new and typical example of this is a Danish debate that arose over the so-called “computer cafés”. This phenomenon, which is found all over the world today, began as “Internet cafés”, where against paying an hourly rate one could get access to a computer with an Internet link. The first cafés appeared in Denmark in 1994-95, and since then they have spread to many large and small towns, at the same time changing their names from “Internet café” to “computer café”. Today they are often simply called what they are: “game cafés”, where you can pay to play the latest computer games.

In 1997 a media debate arose about the cafés, which a group of social workers and parents thought could lead to crime, because children would have to steal to get the money to play. The parents took the firm view that computer games were a pathological need along the lines of “ludomania” – habitual gambling. This fear of the ability of the computer games to “cast a spell” on the players and make them dependent on the playing experience has dogged the computer and the games from the start, and it is a theme that has been dealt with in a number of studies with a psychological point of departure.

Most of the educational and developmental psychology research in the area has regarded computer technology as a potential danger to children’s and young people’s social relations and to the development of imagination and creativity. This view has also appeared at regular intervals in the 1990s. For example, the associate professor of psychology at the Royal Danish School of Educational Studies Steen Larsen can be quoted for the following statement in 1997 in relation to the above-mentioned media debate about computer cafés: “I don’t think it is dangerous to sit in the café and play an hour or two a day, for children are strong. But that is where we have to draw the line. When you play, there is a kind of narrowing of the brain functions that you certainly can’t keep up in the long run. For although a lot is happening on the surface, the games are in reality built up as an eternal repetition of the same routine with small variations. A further problem is that the children do not develop other functions during all the time they are playing. You could say that the development vitamins are eaten up.”

One could surely hardly direct stronger criticism at children playing computer games; and if Steen Larsen is right, the games must be considered a potential hazard to the health of the growing generations and their future fitness for adulthood. All the more so as the games are today played by the majority of children. In view of that development it is of course essential to find out what the computer games mean for the development of children and the young.

Computer games and computer technology

In most of the research to date, as we have seen, it is assumed that one can regard the computer games as primarily technological phenomena, whose significance and influence can be inferred from the underlying digital technology. The problem with such an assumption is however that almost all electronic phenomena today are based on digital technology, including, for example, music CDs and the telephone. The comparison may not on the face of it seem reasonable. Both the telephone and music were fully developed cultural phenomena before digital technology was invented, and in contrast one can claim that the computer games have closely followed the development of computer technology. The first types of computer game had an extremely simple structure and consisted of eternal repetitions of the same or almost the same actions. The computer games of today have developed into more complex and varied genres and forms, but in principle they are still based on the same technology.

Is this development history necessarily an argument for claiming that computer games are primarily a technological phenomenon? As an experiment one can reverse the argument and ask if there need be a causal relationship between technology and the games’ structure, simply because the games developed with digital technology. Technology makes phenomena like computer games possible, just as it makes music CDs, the telephone and the Internet possible. But does that mean with certainty that there are inherent qualities in computer technology that determine the content and function of the specific products?

If this question can reasonably be asked – and I think it can – it means that one cannot arrive directly at an understanding of children’s fascination with the computer and computer games by beginning with an analysis of computer technology, and then deduce their importance and influence. On the contrary one must isolate the computer and the games from the firm technological grip in which assumptions about them have been held for the past twenty years. The first question that has to be asked is therefore not what the computer and the games do to children, but the opposite: what do the children do with the computer and the games? In my view one must try to go from an analysis of children’s use in concrete situations to an understanding of the computer and the computer games as a special medium. We cannot simply assume that the games function and work in the same way as TV, literary texts or films, among other reasons because the interaction between the games and the users are not like those we know from other media. Computer games are a new phenomenon, about which we do not know very much, and to which we can therefore assign meanings they do not have.

If it is important to try to understand the computer game as a special medium, this is because, as mentioned above, it is playing a greater and greater role in children’s lives. At the same time it is just one of many examples of new media and new forms of interactive toys in the wake of the development of information technology, of which we can expect more and more in the future. We can no longer simply choose to dismiss these phenomena out of hand. They are too important a part of children’s and young people’s life, so it is essential that we are able to distinguish between what is quality and what is not. If we are to do this, we must of course know what computer games are.

Electronic media and children’s play culture

An understanding of computer games as a phenomenon of children’s culture is not only relevant to the games themselves. Besides being a medium with its own features, the computer game is also one of several examples of the growing importance that the electronic phenomena have taken on over the last few decades in the everyday life of children. This development has in several ways turned the focus on children’s play and play culture, among other ways in the form of a concern that the traditional play culture is threatened because the media seem to function as a substitute for social relations among the children. An example of this fear is the Canadian children’s culture researcher Stephen Kline, who asserts in a major work on the marketing of toys that these developments make us question whether we can still regard children’s culture as their own. According to Kline it appears that the toy manufacturers have increasingly, through intensive and aggressive marketing in the media, gained control of the play universe and patterns of children, well helped by social development which has meant that children’s free space and time have been greatly restricted. Play culture today differs radically from the “street culture”, typified by social and collective games, that we have known before, thinks Kline, and he sees a clear tendency for children’s play today to be stereotyped and strongly marked by “scripts” from the TV series (Kline 1993:333). Kline can refer to many studies which show that the producers have understood not only how to make toys but also to deliver a narrative universe with pre-programmed fantasies which children to a great extent imitate. Kline says: “Instead of elaborate scenes of improvisational toy theatre, we see in children’s play only the repeated spectacles of combat and fashion, narrated with the same TV slogans interspersed with TV’s theme music and sound effects” (339). Kline quotes and approves of Roland Barthes’ well known criticism of commercial toys and the consumerism that Barthes thought they brought with them:

Faced with this world of faithful and complicated toys the child can only identify himself as owner as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it; they are prepared for him, actions without adventure, without wonder, without joy ... they are supplied to him ready-made; he has only to help himself, he is never allowed to discover anything from start to finish (Barthes 1959, quoted here from Kline 1993).

This is a criticism that on the face of it seems to apply to the computer game, which more than anything has been considered to be pre-programmed fantasies, precisely with a point of departure in their association with computer technology (e.g. Turkle 1987).

The importance of the electronic media for children’s imagination and play is today a central issue with far-reaching implications. If Stephen Kline is right in his assumptions, there is every reason to fear for children’s social development, all the more so as children’s play with media products in the form of both computer games and TV series with associated merchandise today makes up a large part of their play culture. It is a widespread assumption that computer games are an individual and asocial activity, and for that reason influence children’s culture in the direction of increased individualization and isolation. Thus Provenzo, in one of the few existing books about children and computer games, presents a specific observation of how 8-12-year-old boys play Nintendo games while waiting to go in and see a movie:

“They stand in quiet concentration, watching whoever is “on the machine”. There is no roughhousing or joking around while they play the games. One can sense the intensity of the children playing and of those in the group watching, as joysticks are pushed and pulled and buttons pressed and slammed. The games [...] are taken very seriously” (Provenzo 1990:1). In a later article Provenzo asserts: “There are no team players [in the world of video games]; each man or woman is out for himself or herself...” (Provenzo, 1992:31).

An increasing amount of the research in the area of children, the young and computer games sees something different from Provenzo, and instead reports on the social character of the computer games. They do so to such an extent that one can reasonably regard it as a fact. Children and the young play very often and preferably together. Whether computer games initiate asocial or social activities is important to understanding them. This is partly related to the way we today evaluate the value of social and asocial activities among children, and the issue of whether the games can damage children’s play patterns and play culture. But it is also important to the understanding of what the computer games are, and to our ability to distinguish how they differ from other cultural products. I will attempt to demonstrate this in the following.

Computer games and narrativity

If, to begin with, one regards computer games as a result of a cultural development process where computer technology is not a determining factor, but instead a field of potential, whose concrete manifestations cannot be deduced from an inherent “nature”, then the need arises for another type of interpretative framework in which the games can be understood. No such framework, however, is on offer today. In recent research computer games have increasingly attracted attention as independent cultural products. But the research is still at an early stage with few and varied suggestions for interpretative frameworks and models. Attempts have been made to deal with games in terms of the interpretative models used in readings of more traditional media like literature and films. As an example the Danish media researcher Jens F. Jensen has analysed computer games as narratives and has used interpretative models developed by Propp and Greimas for reading folk tales. A number of recent articles argue that computer games and similar interactive phenomena do not have the character of narratives, and that they cannot be accommodated by the interpretative models used for more traditional media. Computer games are special texts which only apparently resemble the texts we find in other more traditional media. Thus one does not “read” a computer game, one plays it. In a critique of the research on computer games the American media and literature researcher Henry Jenkins states that it is based on an incorrect presupposition that traditional narrative theories from textual and media disciplines can be used as explanatory models:

...current accounts lack any serious discussion of the particularity of Nintendo as a means of organizing cultural experience; the writers fail to address what it meant to be playing the games rather than watching or reading them. [...] Most of the criteria by which we might judge a classically constructed narrative fall by the wayside when we look at these games as storytelling systems. [...] characters play a minimal role, displaying traits that are largely capacities for action. [...] the character is little more than a cursor that mediates the player’s relationship to the story world. [...] plot is transformed into a generic atmosphere [...] that the player can explore (Fuller & Jenkins 1995:60-61).

Computer games question the very categories of author, reader and text (Friedman 1994). This is a view one can also find in a recent Danish text collection on multimedia theory, where one reads for example: “An interactive system denotes [...] not a story but rather a narrative space which the player uses to create a linear text”. The user’s role in this space, which is also called “narrative protoplasm”, is compared to the storyteller’s in contrast to the tale’s repertoire of roles and themes, and with the film editor’s role with the raw film (Bøgh Andersen 1997).

Today there is a wide consensus that with the new digital media we are facing phenomena that question our views of “text” and “reader” and not least the relationship between them. The research on computer-mediated communication, interactivity and multimedia has in fact in recent years seen almost explosive developments, especially in connection with the development of the Internet. However, this does not apply to the research on computer games, where we still today find few scattered ideas on how the user’s interaction with computer games can be understood. Understandably enough, perhaps. While it is still fruitful to apply familiar analytical tools to phenomena which, all other things being equal, are still, at the core, about communicating – about conveying a message through a medium which acts as a channel – it is hardly fruitful with computer games, which may be interactive, but cannot directly be called communicative (Juel 1997).

In other words there is a need for the development of a new interpretative framework which can understand the computer games, but which sees them neither as technological phenomena nor as channels for messages. As Fuller and Jenkins state in the quotation above, research has interpreted the games as they appear on the screen rather than studying what it means to play the computer games. Computer games become what they are in use, through reception. This means that the game’s “text”, as it appears on the screen, is only to be regarded as a kind of sheet music which only becomes a “computer game” in its realization. Thus one cannot read and interpret the games outside the interpretative framework constituted by children’s own use (“the computer culture”), if one wants to understand what the games are and mean for the players. In principle this is no different from the case with other media, where in recent decades research has dealt more and more with the recipients’ decoding and use of the products. Such a point of view corresponds to what one finds in many recent interpretative theories, for example in the reception aesthetics of W. Iser, of Eco, in theories of media reception and in media anthropology. The question of the meaning of reception may take a different and more radical form in connection with computer games, where we may be able to speak of a new form of interaction between medium and user.

The computer as theatre

In this context it may be important to realize that an interactive medium like the computer game does not necessarily have the more traditional media like TV and film as its most important precondition. It could be misleading to regard computer games as the result of a “marriage between TV and the computer” (Greenfield 1984). There are important differences in the “viewer role” between the two media. While in front of the TV one is mainly a spectator outside the events shown on the screen, as a player of a computer game one is to a greater or lesser extent participant and actor. In the following I will outline a proposal for a possible interpretative framework for computer games, partly inspired by play culture research and partly by Brenda Laurel, who in the book “Computer as Theater” has tried to describe interactivity by using the theatre as a metaphor and explanatory model (Laurel 1993). Her attempt is not least interesting because it breaks with a view of the computer as a “screen medium” along the lines of TV. At the same time it is equally important that she does not only look at what technology is and is used for today, but also at what it can become. The aim for Laurel is not only theoretical, but also practical, since she wants to develop a basis for creating better forms of interaction between the computer and the user. In so doing she shows how “interactivity” is not a uniform entity that functions in the same way in all computer programs.

Laurel takes her point of departure in the first computer game with graphics, Spacewar, developed by young computer nerds at MIT as early as 1962, long before the games became of commercial interest. But the game represents a contrast with the idea of the “huge calculator”:

Why was Spacewar the “natural” thing to build with this new technology? Why not a pie chart or an automated kaleidoscope or a desktop? Its designers identified action as the key ingredient and conceived Spacewar as a game that could provide a good balance between thinking and doing for its players. They regarded the computer as a machine naturally suited for representing things that you could see, control, and play with. Its interesting potential lay not in its ability to perform calculations but in its capacity to represent action in which humans could participate (Laurel 1993:1).

It is this type of representation, where the user is involved as an actor in the program, which Laurel thinks creates the best form of interaction between user and program. Many programs and program creators think of interaction as a kind of “mediating conversation” between two parties (Laurel 1993:3). Most computer users experience the “conversation” with the computer as clearly dominated by the machine, whose right to set the agenda is hard to question without fatal consequences. But according to Laurel it is not a necessity for computers to behave like this, and it is far from the case in the computer game.

Laurel sees the theatre as a possible metaphor for what is played out in the interaction with computers, in several respects. Common to the theatre and the computer is the fact that in both cases we have representation and actualization. The theatre, the film and the computer all use technical resources to produce representation, and these resources are invisible in the actualization. The technology in the computer thus corresponds to the backstage of the theatre, etc. The representation consists of actions which are carried out by actors in a situation. Unlike other media, the user is not a spectator, but a participant. The user so to speak wanders on to the stage and participates in the actions. Laurel states herself that this stretches the theatre metaphor more than it can really bear, but she still maintains that it is a model that is good as a basis for thinking about the computer interface. She illustrates it in the model below, where the triangles represent actors, who may be controlled by people or by the computer (in principle these do not differ from each other in the representation), while the other forms are other objects in the virtual universe.

Computer games as play

The theatre metaphor opens up a new perspective on the interaction between user and computer game, first and fore-most because the inter-face is not thought of as a boundary which creates an insurmountable gap between the spectator and the action. This is not a story that is told on the screen, but a story that is created with the user as a co-creator and actor. Here the theatre is hardly the proper explanatory model, and in reality Laurel’s model more resembles play than theatre. With play as the metaphor and explanatory model, I think we can get closer to an understanding of what it means to play computer games (and to use other programs – cf. Laurel). In play everyone is in principle a participant, and there is no distance between actors and spectators, the stage and the audience. There is only the stage.

On the face of it there may seem to be a great contrast between play and a computer game, because we often regard play as the same as the free play of imagination, while the computer game follows closely established possibilities and scripts from which one cannot deviate. Let me emphasize right away that I do not want to suggest that the games should be regarded as play. They resemble play and have a number of features in common with it. They are not play – which however does not mean that what the children do when they play them cannot be play.

We may associate the concept of “play” with imagination, but we also talk about specific forms of play as “games”. This is because most games have forms and rules that are important to their existence in a social context. It is the background against which they can be played collectively and can be passed on from one generation of children to the next. Even role-playing games like “playing house” have rules and forms that can be described as a kind of formulae that make up the basis of the game, and which the players can actualize and improvise over (Mouritsen 1996, Rönnberg 1989). These formulae can also with some justification be described as “scripts”, and they can be learned both from play culture and for example from the media. However, these scripts are not the game, as critics of children’s media-inspired games often assume. They are just that – formulae, which only become play through actualization in a situation. The formulae, which are necessary conditions of the games, are intangible, and their existence is dependent on their use and their being taught in use by one generation of children to the next. The structure of these formulae is not random. They exist in many different forms with different rules, different roles and role positions which the players can adopt. A quite simple type for example is the many games created over the roles pursuer-pursued.

It may be appropriate here to interpolate a remark about the play concept I use. My concept of play is taken from Danish play culture research and differs fundamentally from theories of play, for example, in developmental psychology. In play culture research, play is not viewed as a psychological, but as a cultural and aesthetic phenomenon. Play is incidentally not associated specifically with children here, and play culture is not be to be regarded specifically as a children’s culture. Children, young people and adults all play and have a play culture, sometimes even as a collective project. This has for example been the case with the computer in the 1980s, and is the case with football etc.

To make a long story very short, I think that it is possible to develop an interpretative framework that can encompass the computer games by assuming that computer games take their structure from play. They seem to function like the formulae that can be actualized and create games. The special thing about computer games is that rules and roles are materialized in the game. They function as the basis for an interaction where the players, by adopting a role position, can enter into a dynamic interplay with other role positions in the game.

Computer games can on the one hand be regarded as a highly restricted form of play because of the strict structuring of the action potential in the games, for there are still no games that seriously offer the possibility of improvising as in play. On the other hand the manifest forms of the rules and role positions have certain advantages that may be an important explanation of their popularity: they can be played without too many presuppositions in the form of shared knowledge of play formulae. In fact the collective discovery and exploration of the rules in the universe of the games may be what it is all about for the players. Laurel has the following to say about computer programs, and it also fits the computer games very well:

Since all action is confined to the world of the representations, all agents are situated in the same context, have access to the same objects, and speak the same language. Participants learn what language to speak by noticing what is understood; they learn what objects are and what they do by playing around with them (Laurel 1992:18).

In a time when the collective games are in decline, partly because in our modern society we are increasingly dividing children up into age groups, the computer games provide a new potential for establishing social “play space”. They can function without great demands on prior knowledge of the play formulae and traditions of the players. In contrast to traditional toys, the play formulae are to some extent embedded in the games. The materialization may limit the possible actions that can be performed in the game. On the other hand they enhance the possibilities for social relations across differences in the cultures and experiences of the players. One could – with some caution – perhaps even claim that computer games help to preserve play culture and the social and cultural networks among children (or boys at any rate).

Computer games have features in common with other types of game, such as board games and especially role-playing games, but differ in other respects; partly because of the computer’s ability to represent actions and to react to input, partly and very crucially because the rules do not have to be learned and known in advance, but can be acquired intuitively through observation and participation, as happens in play. The players familiarize themselves with rules and roles through exploration and specific experimentation in line with the way children in general acquire knowledge of the world around them.

The character of the computer games as tools in and for play is particularly evident in the type of action game that has so far gone under the name of “3D games” (for example Doom and Quake, but increasingly also racing games and other types). This type of game, which has today been given the name “first-person games”, has become very widespread at the end of the 1990s. In these games the player takes on a clearly defined role on the virtual stage of the game. The player’s interface with the game is of course still the screen, but here it plays the function of the player’s “eyes”. The way the player sees the universe of the game can best be compared to seeing the world through a video camera. You can turn and move freely in all three dimensions (thus the name “3D games”), although you are of course still sitting on your chair in front of the screen. You have to experience the game for a period before you can feel part of the virtual space, but then it works admirably.

In games like Doom and Quake the opponents appear in the form of monsters etc., but it gets better when several computers are linked up in a network, so that other players act as opponents in the game, as happens for example in the game cafés. In such cases it becomes clear how the game has absorbed structures and roles from traditional shooting games in physical reality. As in the “real” games the players operate both in the roles and outside them. An important part of the game consists of the players’ comments (often teasing) to one another through the computer, when they shoot one another. As in physical shooting games, one can for example lie in ambush, and develop special, sophisticated techniques to avoid being shot, etc.

There are many different types of computer game, and while the play formulae are clear in action games, they are less so for example in adventure games, where the main object is to explore a game universe and solve a number of problems. Here it can at first be difficult to see whether and how the players identify with the figures they control, and harder to see how the games are based on formulae or scripts from concrete games. On the other hand it is evident from the children’s use of the games that these are good for establishing social relations, both in front of the screen where the children collectively explore the games, and in the broader sense in the form of exchanges of tips and tricks or of the games themselves (in the form of pirate copies for example). Here the games are clearly tools that help to establish social relations. Whether these relations can be called play is a question of the definition of the boundaries between play and other relations.


The above attempt to outline a possible interpretative framework for the computer games as tools for establishing play remains an outline, and is far from fully developed. It should also be stressed that these types of formulae or scripts, which open up a “play space” in which the players can and must be active, are not something the computer games have a monopoly of. We have many games of this type in our play culture – for example ludo, card games and role-playing games. Certain types of TV can probably best be analysed as “interactive”, since they create activity in the viewers in front of the screen that is not just random viewer reaction, but is built into the structure of the programmes (for example in sit-coms). This is a side of TV programmes and series that needs exploration.

The computer games are in that sense not to be regarded as a brand new aesthetic form, rather as a further development of existing play culture phenomena, for which technology has created new potential. In this connection it is worth remembering that the games are still being developed and are unlikely to have found their final form yet.

Looking at computer games as tools for play might explain why they have achieved their great popularity in children’s play culture. As an attempt to develop an interpretative framework that can function as a basis for an attitude to the qualities of the games this is of course only a first step. We are for example left with a question of a far more general nature in child research than computer games and media: what is play for children? Is it for example a kind of “training” for adult life, a development resource or an acting-out of frustrations? Or is it for example, as Huizinga says, a special sphere that is fundamental to and in our culture and has a value in itself. Whether play is a means or an end in itself is a central theme, where developmental psychology has a different approach from research on children’s culture. My reflections on computer games and play culture above are based on an assumption that play is a special, independent mode of being. Children’s play is not only a means of learning and development. Play is a cultural phenomenon, and such a point of view means that one will not immediately ask what children learn from play or from computer games. To play means to strive to be in a playing state. This end is important enough in itself, and needs no further justification (cf. Huizinga). Computer games are good instruments for getting into such a state. Some are of course better than others, and for the players the capacity of the games for creating good playing spaces are their most important quality.

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Carsten Jessen
Associate professor, Ph.d.
The Danish University of Education
Department of Educational Anthropology
Emdrupvej 101
DK-2400 Copenhagen
Tlf: 3969 6633
Fax: 3969 0081